CAMPAIGN 08, OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: A new face for American diplomacy

A new face for American diplomacy

When I was in Tehran, Iran, a year ago, I was asked by several senior government officials, including former President Mohammad Khatami, what to make of Barack Obama’s candidacy for president of the United States. The young senator from Illinois was still barely on the international radar then. My response was that I couldn’t see Americans nominating, let alone electing, a black man whose middle name was Hussein. My answer, clearly wrong in hindsight, stirred smiles and raised eyebrows among the Iranian leaders because they’d had no idea that Obama had a Muslim father. Even more surprising to them was that he carried, apparently without shame, a Muslim name. From Khatami this elicited an “Ajab!” — Farsi for, essentially, “You’ve got to be kidding!” There were also many nods of agreement with my conclusion about Obama’s chances.

At this point in the presidential race, although it is deeply heartening that I was so wrong in my judgment of American voters, Obama’s great potential to connect with the Muslim world, and to change how Muslims perceive the United States, is conspicuously absent from our national debate. A crucial question about who should be the next president is whether Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain is most likely to be able to heal the rift between the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, a rift not created but dangerously widened by the administration of George W. Bush. What is abundantly clear now — at least to many foreigners and particularly to Muslims in the Third World — is that Barack Obama is the candidate by far the best suited to begin healing that rift and restoring America’s global reputation, and perhaps even to begin reversing decades of anti-Americanism. Obama would begin a presidency with a huge advantage in terms of world perception. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The promise of an Obama presidency can easily be overstated, but what makes the view of the future much more interesting is to tie it to the present. Already there are very positive indications coming out of the Middle East suggesting that a President Obama would be warmly and enthusiastically received.

Consider this account from Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution. She’s been attending the 5th Annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, which brings together Americans with Muslims from Nigeria to Malaysia and everywhere in between. She notes that this year there has been a tidal shift in attitudes towards America veering away from the hostility of recent times, but then she goes on to provide this unexpected explanation for the change in mood:

Quite honestly, though, I don’t think the relative love-fest at this year’s meeting is all ascribable either to regional shifts or to the conference organizers’ choice of speakers. The most powerful explanation for the change is evident in the overwhelming fact that all anyone at this conference really wants to talk about is Barack Obama. [My emphasis]

A friend from the Gulf tells me her young relative was so excited about the Democratic candidate that he tried to donate money over the Internet, as he’d heard so many young Americans were doing. Then he found out he had to be a U.S. citizen to do so. Another young woman, visiting from next-door Saudi Arabia, said that all her friends in Riyadh are “for Obama.” The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia, certainly speaks to Muslims abroad.

But more important is just the prospect of a refreshing shift in the the breeze off the Potomac. More than the changes in the region, it seems to be anticipated changes in Washington that are drawing the eyes of my Arab counterparts and giving the conference its unusually forward-looking tone. We’ll see how long the honeymoon lasts! [Thanks to Marc Lynch for bringing this to my attention.]

Change might be coming, but I seriously doubt it can come fast enough that Obama could turn his global popularity into an electoral advantage. Even so, there’s no question that herein lies a major part of his promise.

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3 thoughts on “CAMPAIGN 08, OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: A new face for American diplomacy

  1. Enzo

    Excellent information, this. Thanks. I, too, would love to see a major change in foreign policy and relations. Question remains, what are the chances of any such change?

    Not to spike your hopes or mine, but what did you make of Obama’s remark during last night’s debate about the Iraq diversion having been responsible for the lack of attention paid South America?

    “Understand, not only have we been diverted from Afghanistan; we’ve been diverted from focusing on Latin America. We contribute — our entire foreign aid to Latin America is $2.7 billion, approximately what we spend in Iraq in a week. And is it any surprise, then, that you’ve seen people like Hugo Chavez and countries like China move into the void, because we’ve been neglectful of that.”

    If elected, let’s hope he meets Chavez soon. And then let’s hope he doesn’t allow himself to be influenced by his tutors/advisors to ignore what he learns.

  2. Paul Woodward

    My reaction to Obama’s statement about South America was to take it as simply meaning that Iraq has so absorbed Washington’s attention and resources that the US has failed to be engaged in much of the rest of the world — including the continent which is its nearest neighbor. What he said didn’t sound particularly well thought out. But when it comes to making nuanced foreign policy statements I wouldn’t expect them to come from anyone until after they’ve formed an administration. Who would he have as his secretary of state and how deeply would Obama engage in the policy-making process? These are questions that won’t be answered until after the election.

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